By James Sorene
This article was originally published in the Telegraph.
When Donald J Trump enters the Oval Office on Friday, he’ll find an in-tray bulging with briefs about burning Middle East issues that need his urgent attention. My guess is he won’t read any of them. Because the one thing we know with absolute certainty about Trump’s policymaking process is that it rests on a firm belief that Donald Trump always knows best.
This presents an unprecedented challenge for the cabinet members and advisors who will need swift decisions from the President to address a fractured, unstable Middle East beset by civil war and jihadi terrorism, a set of problems far worse than any of his predecessors had to contend with.
Trump’s Middle East plan is, like many of his policies, contradictory and confusing. On Iran, he wants to scrap the nuclear deal but also strictly enforce it. He wants to crush Isis by reaching an agreement with Russia, to trade the survival of the Assad regime for a joint effort against Islamic State. But Russia isn’t targeting Isis and neither is Assad. Trump also wants to limit Iran’s malign influence in the region and combat Hezbollah – correctly identifying them as the number one threat to key US allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. But a bargain that leaves Assad and his allies in place under a Russian umbrella is a seismic strategic victory for Iran, solidifying a Shia arc of influence and control stretching across Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Trump bolstered his pro-Israel credentials by announcing that the US Embassy will move to Jerusalem, but he has also talked about the importance of being neutral in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He urged Obama to veto the recent UN Security Council Resolution but suggested he could deploy his legendary negotiating skills to broker an Israeli-Palestinian deal.
None of this adds up to a coherent set of policies to achieve long term solutions to serious conflicts. But the analysts striving to understand how a coherent strategy can be carved out of this mess are missing this point. The Twitter President cares about image and impact, guided by his instincts. Trump is not interested in long term consequences and this approach is bolstered by his loose relationship with reality.
Trump’s cosy embrace with Putin means he won’t challenge the horror in Syria. Iran and Hezbollah will continue to ship Shiites into former Sunni areas. The Assad regime and its Iranian allies will slowly take back control in key Syrian regions with Russian help. Trump could even echo Russian rhetoric and declare the next ceasefire a peaceful end to the conflict. But an insurgency powered by Sunni grievances and spearheaded by Isil and Al Qaeda will smoulder for years.
Trump will continue the fight against Isis and could even step up the US commitment. Raqqa and Mosul will eventually fall and he will proclaim the end of Islamic State his victory. But Isis fighters could disperse across the region and set up a new base in Sinai. Foreign fighters may flood home and use their combat skills for urban terrorism.
On Iran, Trump can tightly implement the existing nuclear deal, sharpen clauses on inspections and push hard to implement UN resolutions that outlaw missile development. He could sell this as a much tougher stance and, if he dials up the belligerent rhetoric, could create the illusion of a completely different Iran policy.
In Israel, the US Embassy move is vintage Trump, he could brand himself “the most pro-Israel President in history” and, for maximum effect, make the move in June to mark the 50th anniversary of the city being unified, under Israeli control, after 19 years of Jordanian occupation. The Palestinians are threatening serious consequences and the international community will be fiercely critical but that doesn’t compete with the applause and adulation Trump will get from the Republican base every time he mentions it.
For the Israeli Prime Minister Trump is a mixed blessing. When Obama criticised him on his left flank he told his right-wing coalition partners he had no room for manoeuvre in the West Bank. Trump is at ease with the Israeli settlement project and could force Netanyahu to finally make a choice. Should he support all Israeli communities in the West Bank, legal and illegal, and put a Palestinian State forever in doubt? Or will he side with the centrists and seize the moment to seek US approval of the largest settlements, close to the security barrier, in Israel?
This bold move could be the first step towards Trump’s “ultimate deal” – a real two-state solution with the Palestinians. Such a deal would require the Palestinians to finally accept an Israeli peace offer and would need the involvement of Sunni Arab states to make it comprehensive. But, like so many Middle East issues, the real question is whether Trump will invest his time and effort in a complex enterprise that may never deliver the big win he so clearly craves.
James Sorene is CEO of BICOM.